Posts Tagged With: jewelry

Art and Watercraft

In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a case that geography is destiny, i.e. that a lot of the major currents of history (such as the conquest of the Meso-americans by the Spanish) were consequences of geographical particulars. In the case of the Finger Lakes, the argument would be that geography is demographics. That is to say, the fecundity of the soil and glacier-flattened terrain makes this good dairy farming country — there are ice cream stores everywhere — which for reasons I do not pretend to understand seems to be associated with a politically conservative mindset. At the same time the bucolic setting attracts a lot of artists, who tend to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Then of course there are the wine growers — no idea where your typical vintner sits on the ideological spectrum — and the harsh winters, which attract rugged individualists, which is to say oddballs.

The upshot is that the Finger Lakes are a place where you can attend an art festival (as we did, in the town of Penn Yan on the northern end of Keuka Lake) that includes a collection of vintage trucks…

… and truck engines, here being admired by some locals who at the risk of stereotyping I somehow doubt voted for Hillary Clinton:

At the same time — and at the same arts festival — it is easy to find some local color of a more charmingly outré nature, like this retro-looking young woman:

She is no doubt on her way to visit the artists’ kiosks exhibiting carved cutting boards, sculptures crafted from farm implements, and — this seems to be a local thing — jewelry made from antique buttons.

We spent a pleasant hour or two at the festival before making our way south back to the town of Watkins Glen at the lower end of Seneca Lake. Our goal this time was not the state park with its many waterfalls, but rather the lake itself, or more accurately a boat ride on it. But here’s a relaxing view of the lake from the southern docks. You should now be hearing Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay…” in your head.

Our conveyance was the beautiful teak two-masted schooner True Love, operated by  Schooner Excursions out of Watkins Glen. At $45 for a two-hour tour (yes, yes, you can start singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song now) it was a great deal and a wonderful outing on a warm sunny day blessed with scenery like this:

One of the things that struck me during the trip is that the water seemed a lot clearer than I remembered it from when I lived here in the 1970’s. (Indeed, I made a remark in my last post about how silty it was.) Turns out that this was not my imagination: our crew members/tour guides informed us that the dreaded zebra mussels have arrived: that highly invasive, prolific, and aggressive freshwater species that has become the scourge of North American freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders — they feed by pumping water through their bodies and extracting microorganisms, algae, plankton, etc., along the way. As you would suppose, this causes the water to become very clear, which sounds great but which is actually terrible because said water is also now nutrient-free. As a result, Finger Lakes fish populations — notably freshwater trout — have plummeted. Remarkably, this has all happened in 25 years: the first zebra mussels were discovered here in 1992. So if you’ve ever wondered how long it takes to completely filter 3.5 trillion gallons of water (which is the actual volume of Seneca Lake), the answer is 25 years if you have enough zebra mussels.

The True Love itself (which is not the small sailboat in the above photo) has an interesting history of its own. It was built in 1922 and appeared in the 1956 movie “High Society” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. (Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong also make appearances.) Here’s Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly aboard the boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ1ZLiyGrE0.  You can see the ship itself in the first few seconds.

There was not a lot of serenading going on during our outing, which is probably just as well, but it was an idyllic way to close out a long weekend.

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Kanazawa Flowahs

Sorry, but do you have any idea how hard it is to make a pun on the name “Kanazawa”? The title actually refers (badly) to our first stop of the day, Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden. Now, I have to confess that for me personally, a garden is a garden. Alice, who is an avid gardener and appreciates these things, probably feels differently. But the Japanese, being Japanese, take pride in complicating this simple concept to a degree that I suspect is designed to make Westerners feel guilty if they don’t know what the hell the Japanese are talking about. In this case, the name of the garden literally means “six attributes”. I have also seen it translated as “six sublimities”, which I am not even convinced is a word. The six attributes are those that, to Japanese thinking, constitute the ideal landscape. They are: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways, and panoramas. So if you do not identify and appreciate these six factors, you are philosophically deficient. That’s definitely me. But it was nonetheless a very compact, beautiful park — 29 acres, dating from 1871 — dotted with exactly the kind of serene Japanese vistas you would expect, like these.

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Today had by far the nicest weather we have had on this trip, so it was a good day to go strolling in a garden. Our tour lead Mariko even dressed for the occasion, sporting a casual kimono for the day instead of her usual Western garb.

kanazawa-kenroku-en-garden-001

We moved from the garden to our next stop, which was the restored house of a semi-prominent Edo-era samurai, Kurando Terashima. Terashima was basically a mid-level functionary who pissed off the wrong people and died in exile, though he did achieve some fame as a painter as well. The house is spare, its interior architecture all rectangular spaces with paper walls and tatami mats, and it looks out over a small, precise garden, in appearance and ambiance a greatly scaled-down version of Kenroku-en.

kanazawa-samurai-house-001 kanazawa-kenroku-en-garden-007

I have been struck by the fact that when discussing houses like this, or indeed any housing at all, the unit of measurement is the tatami mat. You know what it is — a straw mat, basically, though its construction is actually rather more elaborate — but probably never knew its role as some kind of universal standard.  An official tatami mat is 33.5″ x 70.5″ (85.5 x 179 cm), and when someone is describing a room to you (e.g., Mariko describing her apartment), she will tell you that it is, say, 8 tatamis.   Since Japanese living spaces tend to be rectangular, you can assume that she means 4 tatamis by 2 tatamis. (Either that, or it’s a very long skinny apartment.) And so the brochures for the late Terashima-san’s home state that there is a 5 tatami tea room, an 8 tatami room where he painted, and so forth. Japan is on the metric system except when it comes to interior design, where it is on the tatami system.

This very traditional way of thinking gives me a cheap segue into the subject of geishas. Yes, they still exist for real, not just for tourists. (And no, they are in no way prostitutes, though you probably already knew that.) But they are a vanishing breed. Kanazawa has only 43, of which 14 live in the so-called geisha district, which looks like this:

kanazawa-geisha-district-001 kanazawa-geisha-district-002

The district is home to both geisha houses — of which there are only seven left — and jewelry stores specializing in gold (about which more in a moment). The very traditional nature of the neighborhood makes it a popular place to stroll in traditional garb, thus:kanazawa-geisha-district-007 kanazawa-geisha-district-003

The pair in the lower picture are newlyweds, who were in the neighborhood with their wedding photographer.

Mariko had been in contact with the owner of one of the geisha houses, this rather elegant lady.

kanazawa-geisha-district-004

She introduced herself to us, in soft-spoken, accented but precise English, as Lady Baba (“Not Lady Gaga,” she added.) as she explained the system. She owns the elegantly outfitted house (no, I don’t know how many tatamis it is) and hires the individual geishas on a freelance basis. All of her customers are either known to her personally or vouched for by an existing customer. No money changes hands during a visit; customers are billed semi-annually. (And if a customer fails to pay up, then the person who recommended him is held responsible for the debt.) Everything is all very tasteful and on the up-and-up, but discretion is nonetheless absolute since the geisha house is the venue for, e.g., closing business deals. In such a case the geisha is basically a social lubricant, keeping the men happy with conversation, jokes, and playing traditional musical instruments.

The geishas themselves are supposed to be a bit mysterious, with anything about their backgrounds or outside life kept hidden from the customers. It is perfectly permissible for them to be married, but such information is secret since their allure is correspondingly diminished. Although “allure” is probably the wrong word; the attraction is social, not sexual, and though the youngest a geisha may be is 18 years old, there is no upper age limit. Indeed, the oldest geisha who works for Lady Baba — and who by virtue of her conversational, entertainment, and musical skills is one of the most sought-after in her ranks — is 84 years old. (Are you reading this, Mom?)

Because of the traditional nature of the business, and the geisha houses’ status as cultural touchstones, ownership of a house can only be passed on to a daughter who is willing to carry on the tradition. Lady Baba is in a bind in this regard: she has a 12 year old daughter who (at least for now) has no interest in taking over the house when she is older: quite to the contrary, the child has announced her intention of moving to California and marrying a rich American. This leaves Lady Baba with three options: (1) talk her daughter into changing her mind (she’s still only 12, after all); (2) adopt another daughter who would be willing to take over the house (this is a real option); or (3) sell the house. For the moment, Lady Baba is banking on the first option.

She answered all of our questions with great charm and forthrightness, then demonstrated how she ties her kimono sash, which as you’d probably expect is all very elaborate.

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The whole experience was rather remarkable. The whole geisha concept is a throwback, but there is no denying the stratospheric level of social grace that the practitioners command. Lady Baba was very, very smooth: engaging, charming, self-deprecating, gracious, the whole works: when your livelihood depends on delicate social interaction, you get really good at working a room.

We finished up with everyone taking pictures of themselves with her (yes, us too), so I’ll close my geisha discussion with this more pensive portrait that she let me set up.

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Our final stop of the day was one of the gold jewelers in the area. These particular craftsmen (and -women) specialize in gold leaf, which they produce on spectacular quantity and with spectacular thinness.

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The sheets are so thin, and thus the quantity of gold that they contain so small, that they can use it for just about anything without driving the cost too high. Alice bought a fan covered in gold leaf; and I have now, for the first and probably only time in my life , had the privilege of peeing in a bathroom whose walls were literally completely covered in gold. Donald Trump would approve.

Oof. I can’t possibly end this post with that sentence. So I will close by observing that we had sushi for dinner.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Morocco Postscript: Nomad in a Jewelry Store

I have been having a lively email debate with our travelmate Liz on the nature of karma, a concept that appeals to her and many people but leaves my scientific soul cold. The exchange was precipitated by a final purchase on our last night in Essaouria, just a few hours after what I thought would be my final blog post, about 48 hours ago. But for it to make sense I must first tell you about the jewelry stores in Morocco; I’ve been remiss in not doing so sooner.

Moroccan jewelry — of which Alice has now purchased a substantial amount — is most frequently silver, often inlaid with stones. There is great variety among the styles and settings but the stones, though varying in size and shape, are almost always turquoise, orange coral, or a few varieties of semiprecious green gems.

All of the good quality stuff is handmade, and there is a lot of it. All of the stores display it in a common way, which is a chaotic riot of items filling every square inch of the front window and every wall, often spilling over into chests on the floor like some fairy tale Alladin’s find: little open treasure chests a foot or two across, filled with jingly rings and bracelets with no attempt at organization.

The walls are covered with necklaces, pendants, and bracelets, thousands of them, and all with a slight patina of tarnish that somehow makes their presence more warmly human and immediate. The silver shines but does not gleam; their display makes any Western jewelry store seem cold, overlit and antiseptic. But what really catches the eye, or more accurately overwhelms it, is the sheer density of items; if you laid them out on the floor you would cover every square inch of it to a measurable depth, and you could walk across it without a toe ever touching the tile below. Even hanging on the wall there is barely a quarter inch of space between them, filling every surface.

I find these displays to be like looking at a waterfall from very close range, so that the cascade fills your field of view completely. It is beautiful but disorienting, because it gives the eye no focal point on which to gain visual purchase. Rather, your eye flits from item to item to item without ever coming to rest, saccadic motions as your brain tries to process everything at once. It is pleasing and frustrating at the same time, and after more than a few minutes becomes tiring.

Alice does not have this difficulty; if it’s a problem at all, it is probably a male one. She — and I am guessing other women — seems with little effort to sort through the acreage of visual clutter, homing in one or another object and remarking, “Isn’t that one beautiful?” Well, yes, now that you mention it I suppose it is. But it is difficult for me to tell whether it is more or less beautiful than any of the glinting army of argent baubles surrounding it, and I am ever mystified as to what cortical algorithm allowed her to single out that one.

As you may be able to tell we have visited many such stores over the past three weeks. And so it was no surprise, the night before last, that Alice requested that after dinner with our friends we take a final stroll through the cobblestone alleys and their many storefronts in Essaouira. It was a cool and pleasant Saturday night, perhaps 8:30 PM; the stores were all open, and the streets lively.

We came upon one of many jewelry stores like the ones I have described, this one with many antique wares, and as Alice appraisingly scanned the storefront display, for the first time something caught my eye instead of hers, hanging from a cluster of thin leather thongs at one edge of the window. I thought at first it was an old pocket watch, because it was a brass disk whose color had caught my eye, one of the very few non-silver items in the window. I peered more closely and saw that it was not a watch, though it superficially resembled one: brass, about 2″ across with two ornate hands like on an antique clock face. But instead of a single ring of numbers the face had two concentric rings and was divided into 16 segments instead of twelve, which puzzled me. Some kind of calculator, perhaps, like a circular slide rule?

The owner saw my interest — they always come out to chat you up and inveigle you into the store — and pulled it out of the window, then started to fiddle with it. “It opens up,” he said, though I could not guess why, nor what might be inside it. And what was inside was five smaller disks, each of which could overlay the face and thus replace the inner ring. Some of the disks seemed to be marked with Arab numbers — a very confusing term, since actual Arabic numbers do not look like our numbers, which we call “Arabic numbers”. One disk had perforations of uncertain purpose, still others some arcane symbols, possibly astrological.

The owner explained that this was a Saharan nomad’s astrolabe, a navigation device. It had been hanging in the store window for decades; his grandfather had opened the shop in 1923, and it may well have been there since then. Its provenance and age were unknown, though it is clearly old.

So there is your karma, if that’s the way you prefer to look at it: an astronomer on his last night of vacation, walking through an alley in Morocco at the request of his wife, and stumbling on a nomad’s astronomical device for traversing the Sahara. There was really little question of not buying it. Since it had been hanging there forever the owner basically had to make up a price on the spot when I inquired; he asked for $150, I offered $80, we settled on $100 and both walked away happy. So, as my actual closing grace note to this vacation, here is my remarkable new treasure, which I must now research and learn more about. (I have removed the inside disks for display so you can see the whole thing.) What are the symbols? How is it used? How old is it?

Karma? Coincidence? Or just plain incredibly cool?

There is a frisson of excitement in leaving such an exotic place with a little remaining mystery. We are home now, as you read this — I am typing it on the plane, about an hour before landing — so I can soon start my own navigations into my new acquisition’s past.

 

Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Essaouira: Visa Card By The Sea

Essaouira was founded by the Phoenicians but that part of its history is mostly gone, and the city as visitors see it really only dates back to the mid-18th century, which by Moroccan standards is last week. The elaborately-named Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah set himself up here in 1764, creating a fortified city with the help of a French architect, primarily to launch attacks on other cities along the coast to the south.  Here are the waterfront fortifications:

The city remained pretty much a backwater until 1952. That’s when Orson Wells strode into town and filmed Othello here, putting the place on the map and imbuing it with a cool reputation that really took off when Jimi Hendrix visited briefly about 15 years later, in turn causing it to become a hippie magnet. You still hear about Orson Wells all the time; Hendrix not so much, possibly because his most visible legacy is a proliferation of random sleazes on the beach and in the street, offering to sell you weed or hash. (The code word for the latter is “Berber chocolate”.)

With an attractive broad sandy beach and shallow clear (but cold!) water, Essaouira today is very much an Atlantic seaside resort town, attracting large numbers of both Moroccan, European, and (interestingly) Israeli visitors. And investors, too: a large number of the hotels and riads are owned by Europeans, especially French. There is as a result a lot of new building going on, in some cases by tearing down abandoned parts of the old city. The new construction has a very Mediterranean look, like this:

Why is so much of the old city abandoned? The answer, as usual around here, involves Jews. (Mommmm! The tour group people are all looking at me again!) There used to be a whole lot of them in the city — amazingly, up until the mid-1940’s the majority of the town’s population was Jewish. Rather uncharacteristically by historical standards, this did not seem to bother anyone; the Jews were as usual the local finance guys, and were also renowned as silversmiths who infused the local culture with their skill, creating a whole craft genre called “Berber Jewish silver”. Even today there is a very small local population of Jews who are officially designated “Jewish Silver Masters” and who teach the craft to their Berber counterparts. (More about them in a moment.)

So this arrangement worked surprisingly well for everyone; the King even refused to hand Morocco’s Jews over to the Nazis. But unlike in Europe or the US, they never really assimilated, and so a large fraction of them left for Israel after its birth in 1948. Most of the rest left after the 1967 war when Israel pretty much established its permanence.

This left a lot of abandoned houses and not a lot of population to move into them; you can see the top of one of the doorways here. The town has grown as it has transformed into a resort, but those houses are undesirable now, being mostly in the old, narrow back streets of the medina. So it makes economic sense (at some historical cost) to replace those musty structures with new ones that incoming residents will actually want to buy and live in.

The “original” (18th century) part of town is quite small, bounded by the ocean at one end and a large city gate at the other, with a marketplace in between:

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s basically a broader, lighter, and moderately clean(er) version of the medinas that we have seen elsewhere. As you move away from this area, perpendicular to this main street, the gestalt becomes a little more familiar: dim narrow stone streets with intriguing atmospheric doorways… though far less crowded, more orderly, and generally less nervous-making than in Marrakech or the other cities.

What’s behind here?


Or here?


Or especially here?

Our tour lead Mohammed took us on a walking tour of the town this morning, and our first stop was a silversmith where those Jewish Silver Masters both create and teach the local Berbers to create beautiful jewelry. Interestingly, the skills are being taught to both young men and women with disabilities; this approach has the dual virtues of keeping the craft alive and providing an employable skill to people who would otherwise likely languish in dire economic straits. Here is a young deaf girl creating filigree:

   

There is of course a shop, filled with thousands of beautiful handmade silver items at unfortunately attractive prices. Alice went crazy until I finally had to bring her down with a chokehold, and I just got an email from Visa that reads, in its entirety, “HA HA!” But the staff were all extremely friendly, served us tea and did not pressure us. I had a delightful conversation with a young hijabi woman who proudly told me in excellent English that, by dint of having a friend of a friend in show business, she was the proud recipient of a letter from Oprah Winfrey. Which is more than I can say.

I will post photos of the haul later. This is because the last time I mentioned jewelry purchases in the blog I was roundly berated by a female friend with a serious jewelry jones for not providing pictures of the items. (You know who you are.) (It’s my friend Cindi.)

Our next stop was a woodworking shop, as it became increasingly apparent that our Walking Tour was going to be a Spending Tour. (Steve put a philosophical spin on this: “When you paid for this trip you actually spent something. When you buy a physical object it’s just an exchange of assets.” I am not altogether sure why he finds this distinction comforting, but I’ll admit that it sounds good.)

The shop had that wonderful woodworking smell of a mixture of woods, primarily walnut and a hardwood tree called thuya, which I had never heard of. The tools looked basic, the shop floor seemingly disorganized, but there was no gainsaying the quality of the items that the craftsmen were producing, nor the immense amount of time and workmanship that went into them.

And you might find this difficult to believe, but there was a showroom right next door where they sold the stuff they made. And once again, the Barclaycard gods laughed, for, lo, the objects for sale were of great beauty and modest prices, and mine spouse didst answer the primal call. (Actually, I am being unfair, as this time I myself bought two small items and Alice only one.)

After we escaped, Mohammed led us along the fortifications for the rest of the morning. We wandered among the shops for perhaps an hour afterwards, finding such photogenic gems as this musical instrument shop.

By this time Steve and I were salivating at the prospect of returning to the outdoor grilled seafood place where we had so enjoyably pigged out yesterday. Alice and Thumper were less enthusiastic so we split up, wives to a café, husbands to the charcoal. Alice then waded back into the medina, credit card glinting ominously in the sunlight, while I returned to the hotel for a short walk on the beach and a period of meditation about our regrettably high credit rating and the weight capacity of our suitcase.

Tonight, drinks at sunset from a rooftop bar, followed by dinner at a highly-rated restaurant where I should probably wear actual long pants. Tomorrow, a tour of the Women’s Collective for Argan Oil Production (really), which sounds suspiciously like a Stalinist goat poop refinery.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bargaining for Jewelry and Wives

Hold the pepperoni.

Today was a slower day than most… literally, since we spent a certain portion of it slowly wending our way up a tortuous mountain road to visit a scenic gorge. More on that in a moment, but first a word about Berber Pizza.

We were told upon departure this morning that we would have a mid-morning snack in the form of what Momo described as “Berber Pizza”. Whether or not this is the actual local term I have no idea, but we parked our bus adjacent to a small Berber family compound and were led to a dark smoky outbuilding where one of the family and her son were busy making said pizza, as you can see here. She had prepared a savory filling of meat and spices (coriander, cumin, and the usual repertoire of Moroccan seasonings) and was busy pounding out flat loaves, spreading the filling, folding them over, and inserting them into the poorly-ventilated earthen oven that you see in the photo.

We went outside and sat low stools to be served a batch that had been prepared earlier, along with the required tea. It was tasty, nothing earthshaking, though I would like to report for the record that a much more accurate term for the dish would be Berber Quesadilla.

An interesting part of the encounter was the conversation with the homeowner. We talked about money; the average Moroccan income — which is about what he makes — is around $4000 US per year. Obviously the cost of living is very low here, but even so it is a struggle for many people. The good news is that health insurance only costs $40 US per month.

Then it was on to the locally famous Dadès Gorge, for which visit we ditched the bus in favor of two large vans, the better to navigate the mountain road. The gorge is about 500 feet high, very similar in appearance to the Toudra Gorge that we visited two days ago (and which is only about 15 miles from here).  

As you may be able to tell from the picture, we are once again back in territory that strongly resembles the American Southwest, right down to the architecture. All of the buildings are adobe and have a squared-off appearance; constructed out of local clay, their color matches the hillsides in quite the same way as American pueblos. For this reason the drive, though scenic enough, seemed a little anticlimactic; we felt like we had more or less seen it all before.

Descending from the valley, we returned to the Berber village where we had eaten our non-quesadillas and parked the bus. Adjacent to the parking lot, though, was a jewelry store where Momo gave us (and by “us” I mean the ten women out of our group of 16) time to shop. But, he cautioned, with Berbers you must bargain, bargain, bargain. Take the price they offer, he added, then halve it, and halve it again. Seemed a little extreme, but in we went.

At this point I feel compelled to observe that Alice, despite her many virtues, is uncomfortable with bargaining in much the same way that Dracula is uncomfortable with sunlight. Indeed, in one memorable incident that I have been using to embarrass her for the last ten years, she once bargained a Tijuana jewelry vendor UPWARD from the price he quoted. (I should also remark in context that this woman had a successful career as a mathematican and system engineer at NASA, which just goes to show something, though I am not sure what.) in any case, she declared that I was in charge of bargaining. 

She found two pieces of jewelry that she wanted and I asked her how much she was willing to pay for them, in the sense that she would be willing to walk away if the price was higher than that. She considered this and declared the value of the items to her to be $100 (I will speak in US dollars instead of dirham for convenience). So we got the owner’s attention and asked him for the price. At this point Momo walked over and got in on the bargaining action. The scene played out like this:

Owner: <Speaks rapidly in Arabic>

Momo: <Looks disgusted, says something back, turns to me, and makes a finger-twirling motion at his temple> “He’s crazy. Says he wants $200.”

Me: “I’ll pay $80.”

Owner: (in English) It’s real turquoise and coral. $150.”

Momo: “What? Come on! <puts his arm around me> This man <i.e., me> is my cousin! Give him a break!”

Me: “$90”

Momo: “You heard him! $90! That’s all the money he has in his wallet! Go on, Rich, show him your wallet!”

Me: “Here.” <reaching nervously for my wallet, which holds considerably more than $90>

Momo: “That’s it. $90. Put the items in a bag. Rich! take the bag and go.”

…and that was that. $200 asked, $90 paid, which was $10 below our limit. My father, who loved this sort of thing and was very good at it, would have been proud. Even if Momo did do the heavy lifting. Seriously, my cousin?

Our final stop of the day was lunch and a discussion at the family compound of a local imam. The world being what it is today, the word “imam” evokes mental images of wild-eyed bearded fanatics, at least to many Americans. But Morocco is a very moderate place, and this imam was neither wild-eyed nor bearded and seemed like a real gentle soul. He did not speak English, but served us a very nice lunch and then sat down with us to answer any questions we might have about Islam, with Momo interpreting.

The group had a lot of questions on a wide range of topics, including:

  • Extremism (he described the Islamist fanatics as “criminals” whose activities were highly un-Islamic, and averred that literacy and economic reform were the keys to combatting it); 
  • The attitude of the Moroccan clergy towards the liberalization of family laws and the empowerment of women (he stated that the changes are both welcome and consistent with the Koran); 
  • The Sunni-Shia schism (basically a continuing war of succession following the death of the Prophet Mohammed);
  • How one becomes an imam (various selection criteria including memorization of the Koran and seven years of specialized religious education);
  • What an imam actually does (leading religious services at the mosque, and personal counseling; however most imams in addition to their state salary have day jobs);
  • Sharia law (applied only to matters involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance);
  • ..and circumcision. (They do it, at anywhere from 7 days to 5 years of age depending on circumstances.)

It was quite the discussion, lively and interesting, and the imam was unfailingly patient and thoughtful. I decided to pursue the discussion about mitzvahs that I had had with Momo out in the desert camp two days, and asked a lengthy question about whether Islam had an analogous concept of an act of personal responsibility or good deed without expectation of reward, either now or after death. His answer came at considerable length as well, which I can pretty succinctly boil down to one word: No. Islam is very strongly oriented towards achieving paradise in the hereafter. He elaborated that faith (the first pillar of Sunni Islam’s five pillars) is much more important than deeds, but that ultimately it was all about getting into Paradise. In this respect it seems that Islam more resembles Christianity than Judaism. All in all, an interesting and enlightening chat. We all really liked the guy.

At the conclusion of the conversation we held an ambush Islamic wedding. That is to say, Momo and the imam selected one of the couples in our group, the very outgoing Michie (pronounced “Mickey”) and Tom, and “remarried” them to demonstrate an Islamic ceremony. It was pretty cool, and very charming. (I should also add that Michie was totally in her element here: she’s all about getting involved in things, and in fact was the organizer of 10 of the 16 people in this group. They are all part of her understandably large circle of friends whom she convinced en masse to come along on this trip, which they inevitably dubbed “Michie’s Camel Ride”.)

So. Michie and Tom were first dressed up in full wedding regalia. That’s the imam in the middle (wearing glasses) while Tom waits behind him. Notice the curved knife at Tom’s side… you can’t be too careful at a wedding.

Michie was properly veiled (but you can still see her smiling):

…and after vows are exchanged and the veils lifted (yep, that’s her all right!), the couple sits down with two witnesses (friends Jerry and Betty from the group) to negotiate the marriage contract. Seems to me that that is the sort of thing that one would do rather earlier in the process, but hey, we travel to learn things.

Tom offered as dowry his entire fortune, which he declared to be two camels. Michie demanded five. Tom countered with two camels and two poodles. (Poodles are not a typical Islamic medium of exchange. I gather that there is something involving poodles in Michie and Tom’s history; they have been married 19 years. Or nine hours as I type this, depending on which starting point you choose.)

The contract was written (in Arabic, of course) with a bamboo or wood stylus dipped in ink. Both witnesses signed it, and here it is in progress:

They got to keep the contract and the pen. So here is a final look at the happy couple just prior to their honeymoon, which consisted of getting back on the bus with the rest of us. But we did raise a toast to them at dinner tonight, at a very elaborately decorated and beautiful casbah restaurant.

How do you say “Mazel tov” in Arabic?

Tomorrow: on to Marrakesh. No “Marrakesh Express” jokes, please: we’ve already heard them.

 

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